Betting on Waco: How Chip and Joanna Gaines found the tools to turn Waco into a tourist destination
WACO — A young boy waited patiently for his mother to finish her conversation with an employee at Magnolia Market at the Silos in Waco. Then he moved in with his own question. "Have you ever met Chip and Joanna?" he asked excitedly, as if he were grilling a Christmas elf about his boss.
"I have," the employee replied warmly. "They're really nice. I've met their kids, too. And they're just about your height."
The boy looked awestruck as he processed this information. He was one degree of separation from the Gaineses, the "Fixer Upper" stars and parents of five who have transformed this Lone Star town into a pilgrimage site for home renovators, interior design enthusiasts and family-time sentimentalists. Waco calls itself the Heart of Texas, and Chip and Jo have helped recharge its ticker.
"Out of nowhere, millions of people started showing up," said Ashley Thornton, a longtime resident who runs the Act Locally Waco website. "If I'm traveling and wearing a Waco T-shirt, people will come up to me and tell me that Waco is on their bucket list. It's the most fascinating phenomena."
The "phenomena," by the way, has a name. It's called the Magnolia Effect, after the Gaineses' company and Joanna's favorite tree, which holds a sweet memory of an early date with Chip. (He climbed a magnolia and picked her a flower.)
Last year, Waco received about 2.6 million guests. On average, 30,000 people visit the Magnolia Market complex a week, or about 1.6 million a year, according to the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Alamo, one of the state's most popular historic attractions, receives about 20,000 more people a year, but the mission had a nearly 300-year head start.
In today's shopping-mad world, where Black Friday begins on Thanksgiving Thursday, the destination is a throwback to another consumer era. Magnolia's three stores, bakery, coffeehouse and restaurant are closed on Sundays, plus Dec. 24 and 25. The market goes dark at 6 p.m., even during the holiday season, when parents are known to sneak out after their cubs' bedtime to pick up last-minute gifts.
Like many, I happily associated Waco with Dr Pepper (it's the soda's birthplace) and solemnly linked the city to the federal agents' siege of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993, which resulted in nearly 80 deaths. (Locals are quick to inform out-of-towners that the sect's facility was not in Waco; it's 11 miles away.) A Texan friend warned me to avoid the topic of the Davidians; if I needed a safe subject, talk about football.
After five seasons of "Fixer Upper," Waco and the Gaineses seem as inextricably linked as New York City and "Queer Eye" (the original quintet, not the Atlanta remake). For months, I waited for a lull between projects, but it never came. The Gaineses throw out new ventures like a baseball pitching machine.
So I settled on mid-November, a few weeks after Magnolia Press opened and months to years before the unveiling of the furniture showroom (scheduled for early 2020), the boutique hotel (2021), and the $10.4 million expansion of the Silos grounds, which will include a retail village, a Wiffle ball field and a historic church, among other diversions. I discovered a few advantages to going sooner rather than later. I could afford one — and only one — night in a "Fixer Upper" rental. I could find a free parking spot. And I only had to wait 15 minutes for a cupcake at Silos Baking Co. The November rain helped.
A quick recap for people who have been living in a panic room without cable. Chip and Joanna Gaines starred in "Fixer Upper," which ran from 2013 to last year. (Their Magnolia Network will take over Discovery's DIY Network next year.) In the HGTV series, the Waco-based couple show their clients three houses in the area, including one that looks as if a tumbleweed could knock it down. The customers inevitably choose the most decrepit structure, which the Gaineses transform from rags to riches. (Seriously riches: Many of the renovated homes are listed on Airbnb for several hundred dollars a night.) Because of them, shiplap is the popcorn ceiling of the 2010s and the toolbelt is the Hermès of the amateur DIYer class.
The Gaineses blend the enterprising spirit of Martha Stewart with the starry-eyed ambition of "Field of Dreams." In 2014, they snapped up a semi-abandoned 2-acre property dominated by a pair of silos. The 120-foot-high structures were used for cottonseed production and feed storage, but they eventually lost their purpose in life. Today, the former eyesores are pillars of farm chic. Visitors pose against the rusted backdrop, beneath a metal sign that reads #MilesToMagnolia. The majority are holding brown paper shopping bags from the Magnolia store. Babies are also popular props.
Much to the couple's chagrin, many of their "Fixer Upper" clients have moved out of their homes and rented them instead. For example, you can spend the night in the Little House on the Prairie, the German Schmear, the Mailander, the Mid-Mod and the Harp House, which I imagine contains at least one pair of the candlesticks that Clint Harp carved for the couple's remodeled properties. (Harp sells the home accessories, plus other wooden goodies, next door at Harp Design Co.) The Gaineses also run three rental properties, including the Carriage House from Season 3. Between now and June, only four nights are available, for $545 a night, plus taxes and a $95 cleaning fee.
I booked the Shotgun House, which appeared in one of my favorite episodes. (Season 3, No. 14. You're welcome.) The Keebler-cute house looked exactly the same, with one exception: the ladder to the loft. Chip had built a pulley system, so the couple could raise and lower the staircase. I remember sitting on my couch at home, thinking: Well, there's a broken coccyx waiting to happen. Cameron and Jessie Bell, the owners, must have agreed, though their reasoning was probably more like: Well, there's a lawsuit waiting to happen. The staircase is no longer retractable.
Betting on Waco
Waco averages 230 days of sunshine a year; my first morning was not one of them. The sky was gunmetal gray, and the cold burrowed into my bones. I needed a jolt of warmth. Magnolia Press was set up for a long and winding queue, with rows of stanchions and chains leading to a white marble counter. Several employees were standing at attention, ready to fill orders. But at that hour, in this weather, there weren't many.
I sauntered up to the front, ordered a coffee and inquired about the baked goods preening on a cake stand. An employee recommended the cream-filled Magnolia Press chocolate cake, which she compared favorably to a Ding Dong, and the lemon-blueberry roll. She had kind words for the artichoke, spinach and cream cheese croissant and the coffeecake muffin, too.
At Silos Baking Co., an employee stationed by the front door was handing out order cards and pencils — another crowd control strategy, or maybe a diversionary tactic. While I waited for the line inside to move up and out the side door, I asked about her favorite cupcake flavors. She mentioned strawberries and cream and lemon-lavender, clearly not falling for the clever ringers: the all-white Shiplap or the pecan- and walnut-studded Nuts & Bolts. I tried to peek at the card of the women in front of me. We struck up a conversation. She was from Waco and thrilled that she longer had to drive to Dallas in search of activities. However, the Gaineses were sabotaging her goal of reducing her sugar consumption.
Inside the retail store, an employee dropped a tip in my lap: The couple had recently purchased a castle. Their plans for the property were a secret, but the address wasn't. I drove out to the century-old stone mansion with the foreboding gate and noticed a black Jeep creeping behind me. I approached the passenger window and saw a middle-aged woman gripping a hand-drawn map. Her husband was in the driver's seat, resigned to the fact that he was going to spend his vacation shuttling his wife around Waco on a reality-TV-themed treasure hunt.
The New Yorker showed me the maps she had plotted out in pencil, one of "Fixer Upper" houses and Magnolia sites in Waco and the other of Gaines properties in McGregor and Crawford. The couple were fresh off the trail of Food Network's "Pioneer Woman" in Oklahoma and expert trackers.
I met my final Magnolia foot soldier of the day at Magnolia Table, which occupies the building of the beloved Elite Cafe. (You can read about the diner's history on an outdoor plaque and scan old menus inside.) The employee, who was standing outside the front door, informed me I had arrived too late for lunch. Even though the kitchen was open for another hour, she was no longer accepting names for the waitlist. She recommended the Take Away + Market next door. For tomorrow, I asked her, what time should I arrive; she said before 8:30 a.m. Follow-up question: What if I didn't want to eat lunch during the breakfast hour? She suggested 11 a.m. for a 1 p.m. spot.
While this tragicomic scene was unfolding, another employee discovered an available seat and led me to a long table lined with stools. My view was of the takeout market. On my way out, I ran into a couple who were shocked to discover the restaurant was closed. The husband, clearly incensed, wanted to know who stops serving food at 3 p.m.? I raised my hand with the answer: The Gaineses do.
Ten of us from all across the country piled into a minibus, willing to squish for Chip and Joanna. Joey MacArthur, a comedian and video game creator from Washington state, was behind the wheel. In addition to running the "Fixer Upper" tour company, Joey and his wife, Tami, own an antiques store and lead workshops where visitors can make French-country-style tea towels, tiles and pillow covers with Iron Orchid Designs molds. The most popular is "Magnolia," with irregular lettering that resembles the sign on Joanna's first store on Bosque Boulevard. On New Year's Eve, Joey will open the city's first comedy club. In Waco, entrepreneurship is clearly contagious.
We checked off several "Fixer Upper" houses before reaching the Brazos River, where 25 bronze statues of longhorn cattle storm the riverbanks. Several bridges, including the single-span suspension bridge from 1870, arc gracefully over the water. We passed Baylor University (Chip and Joanna are alums; Willie Nelson is a dropout) and caught the back end of a bison in Cameron Park Zoo. We cruised by more houses touched by the Gaineses. Joey released a stream of comic comments tinged with nosy neighbor observations.
"Kim hasn't trimmed her bushes in over 12 months," he joked of Kim Batson, who with her husband, Blake, owns Little House on the Prairie and its overgrown yard.
Joey's voice softened when he spoke about his favorite makeover, the Graham House. In season four, the Gaineses renovated the 800-square-foot residence of a military veteran and his ailing wife. Sherry Graham died of cancer before the episode aired. Her husband, Bill, still lives there.
"He didn't want to move," said Joey. "It reminds him of his wife."
The inevitable question arose: Has Joey ever seen Chip or Joanna during a tour? Yes, he has. In fact, guests on two recent excursions received a royal wave from Chip, who passed by in his truck. Another group spotted Jennifer Lopez, who was visiting the Gaineses with her fiance, Alex Rodriguez. Just a celebrity double date in Waco.
Joey made three stops during our half-day excursion. We popped into Harp Design Co.; the Little Shop on Bosque, which sells discounted Magnolia goods; and Sironia, a collection of independent boutiques with a cafe in the middle. We shopped, we ate, we Gainesed.
I spent the remainder of my time at Magnolia Market. I tried to resist, but the silos called to me like dry-docked sirens. On the morning of the big game between Baylor and the University of Oklahoma, I followed a crowd of people dressed in green and gold through the market gates. We dispersed — to the food trucks and garden shop, the picnic tables and swings.
I walked onto the synthetic lawn, where children constructed their dream condos out of wooden blocks. I found an empty beanbag chair and lowered myself into its lap, surrendering to the Waco Effect.
Where to eat:
2132 S. Valley Mills Drive
The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., and as the day progresses, the wait grows. Check wait times online, or go a few hours early and put your name on the list. The menu is all about comfort. Whether you dig into the Gaines family favorite (chili over Fritos) or nibble on avocado toast, make sure to try Jo's buttermilk biscuits with strawberry butter ($9.50) or the lemon-lavender doughnut holes ($6). Main dishes from $8.
What to do:
Magnolia Market at the Silos
601 Webster Ave.
The market offers a number of dining and shopping options, including the retail store; Magnolia Seed + Supply, the garden shop; Silos Baking Co., which specializes in cupcakes; and food trucks. Visitors can wander through the garden, kick back on swings or play games on the lawn. The market also hosts special events throughout the year; the big one is Silobration in October. The recently opened coffeehouse, Magnolia Press, is a few feet away on Eighth Street. To tour downtown, hop on the free trolley that picks up and drops off passengers at the market. Magnolia attractions are closed Sunday.
The Ultimate Waco "Fixer Upper" Fan TV Tour
324 S. Sixth St.
Tour owner and entertaining guide Joey MacArthur takes guests all over Waco, pointing out "Fixer Upper" houses; several Gaines sites, such as their wedding venue; and city attractions, including the suspension bridge and longhorn cattle sculptures. Cost is $50 per person and includes lunch and stops at Harp Design Co. and the Little Shop on Bosque.
Savage Finds Antiques
324 S. Sixth St.
Tami MacArthur teaches guests to make vintage-looking tea towels, pillows and tiles using Iron Orchid Designs molds of farm animals, butterflies, garlands and other images. From $29.
More information: wacoheartoftexas.com